If you’ve never heard of VoIP, don’t panic. It’s not an acronym people usually carry in their everyday vocabulary. But here’s the fun twist: You’re probably using it already.
VoIP — or oice ver nternet rotocol — is just a fancy name for the FaceTimes, Whatsapps, and Zooms of the world (aka your best friends during quarantine). It is generally used to refer to a method of transmitting voice and multimedia communication via data packet from one user to another.
That’s unlike regular landline or cellphone calls, Reuben Yonatan, founder of cloud communication advising service GetVoIP, told me. Whereas those calls are often carried out by satellite, cell, or landline towers via copper wire and switchboards, VoIP calls rely on the internet.
But VoIP isn’t just for phone calls, Yonatan added. “It’s any sort of data packet you can send through the internet. It could be anything in the form of a voicemail; it could be a message; it could be a digital fax, like a PDF; it could be a video call.”
Often, VoIP providers offer software and apps that can do multiple — sometimes all — of those things. And they do it for cheap, which makes their services increasingly popular among everyday consumers and businesses. But more on that later.
First, some background
There are generally two types of VoIP, Yonatan said: There are those geared toward the everyday consumer, then there are the ones intended for business use.
Consumer VoIPs generally cover features like messaging, as well as voice and video calling; anyone who has used FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, WeChat, and the like are already familiar with the service to some degree.
VoIPs for businesses, on the other hand, usually come with more advanced features like screen-sharing, HD voice, call recording, enhanced caller ID, and call forwarding. Think of companies like Zoom and Ring Central.
But the line between the two are starting to blur. Ever since the coronavirus pandemic forced people to stay at home, business products like Zoom have been gaining traction from everyday consumers. Overnight, it’s become a host for college lectures, blind dates, workout sessions, church services — even an inspiration for memes.
“I don’t think that their intended purpose was for my kids to be able to connect with their grandparents; their intended purpose was to become a business product,” Yonatan said. “They kind of became this go-to social media platform of some sort.”
Yonatan said Zoom’s popularity grew in part because it is well-designed, comprehensive, and straight-forward. But part of it also has to do with the fact that the platform offers a highly competitive service via a cost-free model that allows users to access relatively advanced features and large group calls for up to 40 minutes each time.
The upside: It’s cheap and multifunctional
Businesses and individual consumers are transitioning to VoIP for a lot of the same reasons Zoom became popular during the pandemic: It’s cost-effective, especially considering that it’s capable of a whole lot more than traditional landline and cell services are.
“Most of the consumer VoIP products are free or really inexpensive. They’re probably a few dollars a month,” Yonatan said. And that’s without factoring in the money people could save from international calling fees.
The same goes for the business side of things, too: Whereas traditional business landline services cost about $50 to $70 per user per month, Yonatan said VoIP services cost just about $20 to $30 in comparison.
But there’s more. VoIP is not just cheap relative to other communication solutions; it’s also cost-effective in that it allows businesses and professionals to transition to work from home models that require less financial resources.
“They don’t need to spend money on real estate spaces. They don’t need to spend money maintaining an office and employees don’t have to spend hours traveling,” Yonatan said. “A lot of companies are going to figure out where and how they can make it work as much as possible.”
The downside: It’s bandwidth-consuming and susceptible to censorship
VoIP sounds low-cost enough. But it might not work well if you’ve got a weaker internet connection — or none at all. After all, VoIP is an internet-based service that depends on … well, good internet.
“Everyone’s working from home — and my kids personally, their classes are all on Zoom — and someone could be streaming something. We’re really kind of congesting the internet line, and so what ends up happening is that it takes a toll on your web connection.” Yonatan said. “You do need a pretty strong internet connection to support all the connection points you have throughout the house.”
Of course, things can improve with increased data speed and reliability — and the adoption of 5G technology will help, according to a VoIP industry report by market research firm IBISWorld. Don’t forget, though, that faster internet will cost you more money.
Another thing to keep in mind: Some countries can’t access VoIP services because of internet censorship, and impacted VoIP apps run the gamut from Skype, to WhatsApp, to FaceTime. In those cases, you may not be getting the international coverage you need. However, bans on some business apps and softwares have been lifted temporarily to facilitate remote work and distance learning during the pandemic.
Data privacy and security
Unlike analog landline and cell services, VoIP transmit communication through digital data packets on the internet. That means you’ll have to pay extra attention to how your data privacy and security are being handled by different companies.
A research from NYU’s Center of Cyber Security shows that it’s possible to track encrypted VoIP calls. But some VoIP services aren’t even encrypted at all.
Zoom, for example, doesn’t support end-to-end encryption, according to The Intercept. And in recent weeks, it’s been proven vulnerable to a slew of security blunders: There’s the bug that let hackers steal Windows passwords and the secret collection of LinkedIn data. Then there are thousands of private Zoom videos being uploaded online and account credentials being sold on the dark web. (To be fair, the company has promised to fix things after these repeated incidents.)
Of course, traditional landline and cell calls are susceptible to wiretapping and spams, too; but the internet makes it just that much easier.
Yonatan recalled how he stopped using Skype — something he said he had used “religiously” five or six years ago — after being repeatedly spammed.
“Every time I would log into my spam account I would get like 20 or 30 friend requests from people I didn’t know,” he recalled. “Spammers basically just figured out my username.”
Should I transition to VoIP?
Bottom line is: VoIP a good idea for your budget if you have good internet connection — just make sure you’re adhering to the best security practices and paying attention to how your data is being handled.
You’ll have to make some decisions, though: Do you want a physical VoIP phone that resembles a traditional desk phone, or do you want a software-based phone that you can install onto your computers, phones and tablets?
Physical VoIP phone systems tend to be more complex and expensive, Yonatan said, but you can also transform your good ole landline phone to a VoIP phone by using an analog-to-digital adaptor.
If you are looking to pay for a residential or mobile VoIP solution, though, Yonatan suggests that you look out for a couple things:
Get long distance calls. And avoid services that charge additional fees for them.
Don’t migrate your existing mobile phone number to your VoIP provider. Yonatan has heard horror stories about VoIP companies holding customer’s phone numbers hostage to cut down on customer loss. Just get a new number.
Don’t let the provider sell you features you don’t need. “A lot of these providers have very aggressive sales strategy in place,” Yonatan said.
Read reviews and ask around. Chances are, someone you know have used a VoIP service.
Don’t sign into a long-term contract. It’s better to pay $5 extra on a month-to-month contract than to commit to provider you don’t like, Yonatan said. Take advantage of that free trial, too.
Or, you can just do the thing everyone else do and use free apps like FaceTime, WhastApp, Snapchat, Google Hangout, and Zoom. They might just be enough for what you need.
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